A gust of wind slammed hard against the door, though thankfully the door barely budged. The inside of the hut was simple but cozy–a bed jutted out from one wall; a fire crackled in the hearth, magnificent tongues of emerald, amethyst, and amber flames flickering around the iron cauldron held aloft by a single hook that didn’t appear to be attached to anything; a modest-sized table flanked by mismatched, hand-carved chairs on all four sides, took up a sizeable portion of the floor.
“You were followed,” The Soothsayer said. “Not that I’m surprised. I was expecting three guests. One familiar, one harboring ill will, and a stranger from far away.”
“I’m guessing I’m the stranger?” Curian hazarded.
The Soothsayer turned, his eyes meeting Curian’s causing her to flinch. His eye sockets weren’t empty–something was there, but it was like a hint of fog. Through it Curian could see bone.
“You’re not of this world,” The Soothsayer said, returning his attention to the cauldron. He shuffled to a small cabinet and produced two tankards. He took them to the cauldron, their handles gripped in one hand, and ladled a dark liquid into each. He turned to the table, setting the tankards down.
“Sit, please,” The Soothsayer said as he took the seat nearest to him. Curian and Sophia sat at each of his sides.
“Tea?” Curian guessed, glancing into to the tankard-full of inky black liquid. It looked more like the sea on a stormy night to her, and she found she couldn’t look at it for too long without shapes forming beneath the surface. She noticed The Soothsayer watching her intently.
“See something?” The Soothsayer asked, smiling.
Sophia opened her mouth to speak, but stopped short when The Soothsayer raised a hand.
Curian looked into the tankard. Shapes began to move around in the liquid again, gaining clarity the longer Curian observed them.
“The Crow commands the skies, their talons judgement rained down from the heavens,” Curian said, the words falling forward on command. “The Eel lords over the deeps, devouring anything and everything to satisfy their endless greed. The wolf prowls the forests and the plains, ceaselessly seeking out lost souls to snuff out. Three that are one. One that is three.”
“The Morrigan,” Sophia whispered. “I had always thought them a fairy tale meant to keep unruly children in line.”
The Soothsayer shook his head. “Your knowledge thwarts your wisdom,” he said. “The Morrigan are very real. Where Dullahan rides, The Morrigan follow to claim the fallen souls. We have much to discuss and only so little time, stranger.”
“I normally prefer Curian,” Curian offered.
“Let us compromise by saying I will call you stranger,” The Soothsayer replied, “and you will be able to remain safe in my home while Babd circles high above.”
“Fair enough,” Curian replied, eyes darting to the ceiling.
The Soothsayer sighed. “We have much to discuss and only so little time, I’m sorry to say,” he said. “I took the liberty of drawing up a map and marking down the places you must travel to should you wish to thwart Dullahan. I can give you no more information than that and would give you no less.”
Curian furrowed her brow. “Why can’t you?”
“And thank you for what you can provide!” Sophia added hastily.
The Soothsayer shook his head. “The spirits only give me so much to work with, after all, and my sight is clouded by something frightful on the horizon. You need to collect the pieces of the Prognosticarium before Dullhan, or he shall ride from world to world with death following in his stead.”
Curian stood up. “I won’t stand for that,” she said, trying to sound brave.
“And I’ll travel alongside you on this journey,” Sophia added.
The Soothsayer smiled. “You’re both quite brave,” he said. “Perhaps too brave? Time will tell. Drink up. That tea should keep you energized long enough to at least make it to the end of the tunnel.”
Curian raised an eyebrow. “Tunnel?” she asked.
The Soothsayer stood up, gesturing for Sophia and Curian to do the same. They did, picking their tankards up. The Soothsayer laid his hands down on the table, palms flat, and pressed down.Nothing happened at first, but after a moment of him pressing down on the table there was a light click. The floor beneath the table crumbled, slowly and deliberately, until it formed a narrow spiral staircase.
“Mind your step,” The Soothsayer instructed. “Give your eyes a moment to adjust once you’re down there, then follow the tunnel. You’re not yet ready to face Babd”
Curian gulped down the tea. It tasted far less terrible than she’d expected, but was more complex a drink than she’d normally reach for and so she offered a polite smile followed by a very abrupt and unexpected belch.
“The greatest sign of approval one could give,” The Soothsayer chuckled. “Now go. Time is a precious resource, and you’re both wasting it dallying here.” Curian lead the way with Sophia following slowly behind.
Curian paused, Sophia nearly bumping into her. “Thanks for saving us from the murder-bird,” Curian said. “And the tea. And the cryptic help, I suppose.”
The Soothsayer waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Less talking,” he scolded. “You can thank me later.”
Curian offered a lazy salute. Sophia bowed. They continued down the stair, the light fading the deeper they moved. The dim light from above was gradually replaced by a soft, green glow emanating from dense patches moss on the tunnel walls. Trickles of water trailed down the walls, tracing shallow valleys in the earth around them.
“Hope this is as sturdy as The Soothsayer’s place,” Curian said, glancing at the tunnel’s ceiling.
“Let’s move quickly so we don’t have to further investigate your line of inquiry,” Sophia replied with a smile, walking a little faster. Curian chuckled, following Sophia’s lead.
The tunnel sloped gently downwards, the glow from the moss shifting colors to a deeper green. Water dripped freely from the ceiling, its plunking against the tunnel floor the only interruption to the silence.
“Where do you think it opens up?” Curian asked.
Sophia stopped, glancing around. “I can’t say with certainty,” she said. “Only one way to find out, yes?” She smiled at Curian reassuringly, turned, and continued walking along.
The floor of the tunnel gradually, almost imperceptibly, began to slope back upwards. The gradual slope gave way to a more noticeable incline. The flat, featureless floor gave way to meticulously carved stairs. The duo climbed the stairs, the light of the moss gradually dimming as the tunnel walls grew closer and the moss grew more sparse.
Sophia stopped abruptly with a thud and a muttering of curses. “I suspect I found the exit,” she grumbled.
“Wait,” Curian whispered. She stepped around Sophia, careful to not hit her head. She reached blindly, moving her hands along the earthen walls until they scratched against a rough wooden surface. She carefully moved her hand along the wooden surface until she found something cold. She wrapped her fingers around it and leaned into what she hoped was a door. It gave way with a dull creak, daggers of sunlight piercing in around the wooden hatch.
“Not to sound weak, but a little help wouldn’t hurt,” Curian said as she continued to push.
Sophia leaned into the wooden hatch with her shoulder, pushing upwards as well. It shifted up, then fell forward with a soft rustle. The sunlight was bright, the air outside pleasantly warm.
“So beautiful,” Sophia said as she stepped out onto the hillside. Towering trees dense with vibrant emerald leaves covered much of the horizon.
“Can’t disagree,” Curian said stepping out of the tunnel. “The forest isn’t half-bad either.” She smirked at Sophia, breaking into a full smile when Sophia blushed. The forest, she noticed, looked familiar.
“This is where one of the pieces landed!” Curian called out triumphantly. She scanned the horizon until she spotted what she was looking for–a trio of trees that stood taller than the others, each resplendent in glittering golden leaves. Curian pointed in the direction of the trees and began walking forward. Sophia tried to keep pace, catching up with Curian.
Before they could process the sharp snapping sound, the world shifted violently. The net closed around them and jerked to a stop halfway up a nearby tree. The surrounding bushes began to shake as figures, concealed in clothing perfectly matched to the terrain, emerged.